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Civil Rights

Clinic Pushes for Prisoner Rights

Testimony before the state legislature advocates for improving rehabilitation and reducing solitary confinement.

Student Jennifer Tamkin ’24, near left, testifies before the Massachusetts Legislature in support of a prisoner rights bill. 

Boston College Law School Civil Rights Clinic testified before the Massachusetts Legislature on January 23 on behalf of a bill that would provide more time and space for prisoner rehabilitative activities, including lessening stays in solitary confinement.

The clinic spoke in support of Senate Bill 1493 and House Bill 2325, also known as an Act Related to Rehabilitation, Re-entry, and Human Rights for Incarcerated Persons (collectively referred to as “the Bill”).

The Bill would guarantee eight hours of meaningful out-of-cell time, including opportunities to develop and maintain positive social skills and engage in programs that will provide education and vocational training. In so doing, it would eliminate the practice of prolonged solitary confinement in Massachusetts. According to Reena Parikh, assistant clinical professor and director of the BC Law’s Civil Rights Clinic, the Bill is an essential step towards giving incarcerated people human rights and empowering them to make positive contributions both inside and outside of prison—which would keep prisoners, correctional officers, and communities safer.

The legislature passed the Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA) in 2018, which was designed to restrict the Department of Corrections’ (DOC) use of prolonged solitary confinement. However, Parikh said, the DOC has systematically failed to comply with the CRJA, and as a result the Civil Rights Clinic filed a putative class action lawsuit against DOC in 2022 on behalf of those in solitary confinement at MCI-Cedar Junction (MCI-CJ).

However, the DOC then closed MCI-CJ in 2023 and transferred many of the clinic’s clients to the Secure Adjustment Unit at the maximum-security prison in Shirley, MA, the Souza Baranowski Correctional Center, where they remain in prolonged solitary confinement under oppressive conditions. Bill S.1493 could end restrictive housing once and for all, and create a baseline of human rights for all prisoners in DOC custody, Parikh said. The clinic’s community partners at Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts spearheaded the advocacy for this bill in collaboration with incarcerated individuals.

Third-year law student Jennifer Tamkin delivered the oral testimony at the statehouse on behalf of the clinic. “It was an incredible experience to be in-person in front of the legislature testifying in support of human rights for incarcerated individuals, but also to hear the voices of those incarcerated through Zoom who gave testimony in support of this bill,” Tamkin said. “Any prison reform measures need to be grounded in the voices of those actually impacted by DOC’s harmful policies and practices.”

Student attorney Jonathan Bertulis-Fernandes, a 3L who was previously in the clinic and continues to do pro bono work with it under the supervision of Parikh, researched the attendant legal and policy issues and drafted the written testimony.

“The Massachusetts Department of Correction has consistently shown itself incapable of following the CJRA, which placed clear and express limitations on the use of solitary confinement in Massachusetts,” he said. “This bill would close these loopholes and ensure that our clients, and all incarcerated citizens in the state, finally benefit from the CJRA’s foundational protections. Solitary confinement is inherently inhumane and it is high time that we end its use in the Commonwealth.”